First Look: The Farnese Blue – Witness to 300 Years of European History
Discovering an unknown historical diamond such as the Farnese Blue happens once in a lifetime. Apart from its beauty, the stone symbolises 300 years of history. It has travelled around Europe during these three centuries. And all this time, it was hidden away in a royal jewellery box. Except for close relatives, and of course the family jewellers, no one knew about its existence.
Where does it come from? That is the question. The first historical record dates from 1714-15. In 1714, Philippe V (1683-1756), King of Spain married an Italian princess: Elisabeth Farnese (1692-1766). Both were members of illustrious European royal houses. Philippe was one the Sun King's grandsons. Born a French prince, he became King of Spain in 1700. That year the Spanish line of the House of Habsburg came to an end when King Charles II died in Madrid. Having no children, his immense estates were meant to go to his sister's descendants. Unfortunately, that sister, the Infanta Marie Thérèse, had married Louis XIV of France. The idea of uniting two of the most powerful states of Europe under a single king was considered too risky, so it was decided that the oldest of Louis XIV and Marie Thérèse's grandsons, Louis, Duke of Burgundy, would inherit the French Crown. The youngest, Philippe, Duke of Anjou, would become the King of Spain, founding the line of the Spanish Bourbon Kings, which is still on the throne today. Europe, especially Austria and England, found it difficult to accept such a decision, as it still gave France an enormous edge of power. The War of Spanish Succession started in 1701, and would last 12 years. In 1713, the Utrecht Treaty acknowledged the French succession, providing that France and Spain would never be united.
The next year, Philippe V's first wife, Marie Louise of Savoia, died at the age 25. Spain needed a new queen, but for the same political reasons she had to be chosen very carefully. She could not be French, or Austrian, or even English. She had to be Catholic, and preferably a member of a minor royal house. Elisabeth Farnese was the perfect choice. She was the daughter of the Duke of Parma. Her family's estates were rather small. Furthermore, her father was dead, and her uncle had no sons, so the line was close to extinction. She was 22 years old, not especially pretty, but pleasant enough. The marriage was celebrated in Parma on the 25th of August 1714.
The Spanish finances were in a very bad state, owing to the debts accumulated during the long years of war. In order to provide a suitable dowry for the new queen, the Spanish government sent word to the governors of all the Spanish colonies in the East and West, ordering them to send wedding gifts to Madrid. It took one year to assemble the treasures. In August 1715 the Golden Fleet sailed from Cuba: twelve ships carrying hundreds of gold bullion and a case of enormous emeralds. Unfortunately, after 10 days at sea, a hurricane destroyed most of the fleet in the Gulf of Florida, with only one ship escaping. The story goes that the emeralds were lost in one of the sunken ships. But one diamond found it’s way to Spain: a pear-shaped blue diamond offered to the new Spanish Queen by the governor of the Philippines Islands.
That provenance is mentioned on a silver plaque, which is included in the diamond's box. It reads in French: “Remarkable blue brilliant. This historical stone was offered by the Philippine Islands to Elisabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain, wife of Philippe V, great grandfather of the Comte of Villafranca, current owner of that stone.” The last line gives us the clue of the transmission of the diamond. Comte of Villafranca was the title taken in 1849 by Charles II of Bourbon, ex-king of Etruria, ex-duke of Lucca, ex-duke of Parma (1799-1883). This prince was born on the 22nd of December 1799. Elisabeth Farnese, was his great-great-grandmother.
The marriage between Elisabeth Farnese and the King of Spain was a happy one. She gave him four sons and three daughters. It seems Elisabeth had a favourite child: the Infante Philippe, born in 1720. Being a younger son, there was no chance that he would succeed to the Spanish crown. Elisabeth took it upon herself to find him a crown of his own. The Farnese line being extinct, she organised the succession of her ancestor’s duchy so that Philippe would inherit it, which he finally did in 1745. Four years later, he left Spain to take possession of his small kingdom. It is highly probable that his mother gave him the blue diamond around this time. After all, the stone had been given to the Queen by the islands with which he shared a name.
From Philippe, the first Duke of Parma of the Bourbon line, the stone went to his son, Ferdinand, the second Duke of Parma (1751-1802). The first years of the 19th century were a very tumultuous time for royal Europe. When Ferdinand died, Napoleon simply annexed the Duchy of Parma. Ferdinand’s son, Louis (1773-1803) received a small kingdom in compensation. He became King of Etruria with Florence as its capital. His reign was very short as he died in 1803. His only son, Charles II, at the age of four, inherited the Crown of Etruria, but lost it four years later when Napoleon decided to annex the kingdom. After the fall of the French Emperor in 1814, Charles II should have received his grandfather’s duchy, but the congress of Vienna decided differently. Parma was awarded to Napoleon’s ex-wife, the Empress Marie Louise. In compensation, Charles of Bourbon, received the Duchy of Lucca. He had to wait until the death of Marie-Louise in 1847, to get his ancestral duchy back. And it turned out to be for a very short time.
1848 was a crucial year in the history of Europe. The entire continent was aflame after the French Revolution of the “Trois Glorieuses”, which marked the end of the Bourbon-Orleans monarchy in France. Parma was not spared. In March 1849, Charles II decided to abdicate and leave the crown to his son, Charles III (1823-1854). He then took the title of Comte de Villafranca. His decision was a wise one. His son Charles II, was murdered in the streets of his capital in 1854.
The Comte de Villafranca lived a very long life, dying in 1883, leaving the blue diamond to his grandson, Robert (1848-1907). After the assassination of his father, he became the last reigning Duke of Parma. He was six years old and the Regency was in the very capable hands of his mother, Duchess Louise (1819-1864) a granddaughter of Charles X of France. But her wise rule was not enough to stop the “Risorgimento”, the unification of Italy was on its way, and in 1859, Duchess Louise and the young Duke Robert left Parma forever.
PORTRAIT OF ELISABETH FARNESE, QUEEN CONSORT OF SPAIN, 1723. ARTIST: RANC, JEAN (1674-1735). PHOTO BY FINE ART IMAGES/HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES.
Robert lived most of his life in Austria. Like the other Italian Princes of Tuscany, Modena and Naples, he found refuge in the estates of his cousin, Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916). Although he had lost his crown he was still a very rich man. He married twice and each of his wives gave him 12 children.
One of his sons from his first marriage, Prince Elie (1880-1959), married the Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria (1882-1940) in 1903. In her jewellery inventory, which she wrote herself, Maria Anna of Austria Bourbon-Parma mentioned a diamond tiara, which had been made up out of diamond belt that had given to her as a wedding gift by her brothers and sisters-in-law. This tiara had an amazing history as the diamonds set in it came from Queen Marie Antoinette of France (1755-1793), through her daughter, Madame Royale, Duchesse d’Angoulême (1778-1851) who had left the tiara to her niece, Louise of France, Duchess of Parma.
In her inventory Princess Maria Anna explained that, at one point, the blue diamond was mounted on the tiara. She certainly wore it this way at the resplendent balls for which the Habsbourg court was famous. The fall of the Austrian Empire in 1918 marked the end of that fabulous world. And it is an interesting coincidence that 100 years later, the blue diamond comes back into the light. This auction may be the only chance to admire this very rare and historical stone, before it disappears once again to become the star piece of a new collection.
Vincent Meylan is a french journalist and historian. He has written many books about jewellery : Boucheron : The Secret Archives, Van Cleef & Arpels : Treasures and Legends, Mellerio : Jewellers to the queen of Europe. Bulgari : The treasures of Rome.